Stem cell breakthrough?

17/11/2007 19:26

The Daily Telegraph today reports on its front page (and now being picked up by various others) that Professor Ian Wilmut, the scientist behind Dolly, the cloned sheep, has abandoned the cloning method (nuclear transfer) which he developed to explore an alternative approach pioneered recently in Japan by Professor Shinya Yamanaka and apparently replicated in the US. The crucial ethical issue here is that this alternative does not require the creation and destruction of embryos as pluripotent stem cells are gained from manipulation of adult stem cells.

The Telegraph reports

Prof Wilmut is backing direct reprogramming or "de-differentiation", the embryo free route pursued by Prof Yamanaka, which he finds "100 times more interesting."

"The odds are that by the time we make nuclear transfer work in humans, direct reprogramming will work too.

I am anticipating that before too long we will be able to use the Yamanaka approach to achieve the same, without making human embryos. I have no doubt that in the long term, direct reprogramming will be more productive, though we can’t be sure exactly when, next year or five years into the future."

Prof Yamanaka’s work suggests the dream of converting adult cells into those that can grow into many different types can be realised remarkably easily.

While there must always be caution about these claims (other approaches not using human embryos have been heralded in the past) and the Yamanaka alternative may well raise ethical dilemmas of its own, this looks a most exciting development.

For those wanting a short (133pp), accessible and inexpensive (£3.99) introduction to the whole debate a good recent guide is Ted Peters’ The Stem Cell Debate

The Stem Cell Debate (Facets)

It is a guide to the debate by a Christian theologian who has been very involved with scientists working in this area. He is a strong defender of human embryonic stem cell research due to the benefits it is likely to bring in terms of relieving suffering. The book provides a really helpful guide to the science and then sketches three different frameworks for ethical responses - embryo protection, nature protection and medical benefits - which he argues are incompatible and which explain why the public debate leads to so much conflict. A fourth framework sets research standards (eg protection of embryo after 14 days). The final chapters spell out more of his theology of humanity (to explain why he does not see the early embryo as an inviolable human person). I’m not convinced by his treating the frameworks as incompatible nor by his positive assessment of embryonic stem cell research based on his preference for the ’medical benefits’ framework. In addition, if I understand the Telegraph report correctly, his crucial and negative discussion (pp38-9) of ’could adult stem cells provide pluripotency?’ may be being overtaken by latest research. Despite these significant weaknesses, this is a helpful guide to the debate and the issues.


Three 'inclusive' contributions to the sexuality debate

16/11/2007 23:55

I have recently found three interesting contributions to the debates about homosexuality from an ’inclusive’ perspective and three different areas of academic expertise.

Most recent is the newly published submission from the Royal College of Psychiatrists which is available as PDF or HTML.

I also discovered the draft text of a lecture by Ian Markham, Professor of Theology and Ethics and Dean of Hartford Seminary - "Open Orthodoxy and Same-Sex Marriage: Where Should Christians Stand?", one of the Lebel Lectures on Christian Ethics at Calgary University, Canada. A MS Word document which asks not to be quoted offers - through a contrast with polyamory and engagement with VA Demant and biblical teaching in favour of monogamy - a defence of ’gay marriage’ as a distinctive form of Christian witness in contemporary society. This apparently draws on material in his recent book Do Morals Matter?

Do Morals Matter?: A Guide to Contemporary Religious Ethics

There is also the text of the lecture in May of this year by New Testament scholar, Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College, London entitled Being Biblical? - Slavery, Sexuality, and the Inclusive Community which gives a foretaste of his eagerly-awaited and soon-to-be-published, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics.

Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics


Abortion - Doctor's rights and patients' rights

16/11/2007 23:19

I have just discovered an alarming news report in last Sunday’s Observer about a Christian doctor I know who is under investigation by the General Medical Council (GMC) for how she responds to patients seeking an abortion and being criticised by my own MP here in Oxford. Tamie Downes apparently gave an interview to the Daily Mail earlier this year in which she spoke of patients who decided to continue with their pregnancy rather than proceed with termination after her consultation with them. She is also one of the organisers of a petition to the British Medical Association (BMA) about the current abortion law and its briefing paper on the subject of early abortions.

While one must be cautious about basing too much simply on one news reports it would appear that Dr Downes is being targetted because other doctors - including Evan Harris MP - are unhappy that after conversation with her some patients decide not to have an abortion and that Dr Downes has spoken to the media about this fact. There is - in the report - no evidence that she has broken the GMC guidelines which do not prevent those doctors conscientiously opposed to abortion speaking to patients seeking termination but simply and sensibly state they must respect patients and their views and

You must not unfairly discriminate against them by allowing your personal views to affect adversely your relationship with them or the treatment you provide or arrange. If carrying out a particular procedure or giving advice about it conflicts with your religious or moral beliefs, and this conflict might affect the treatment or advice you provide, you must explain this to a patient and tell them that they have the right to see another doctor

As the Chair of the BMA’s medical ethic committee is quoted as saying at the end of the report

’In discussions with patients [about abortion] GPs may want to investigate a woman’s individual circumstances for requesting abortion to ensure their patients are confident about the decisions they make - this is good clinical practice. However, doctors who force their own personal views about abortion on their patients are acting against BMA and GMC guidelines and are not behaving in their patients’ best interest.’

This whole debate raises a host of important ethical questions. It would appear that (uniquely?) in relation to this medical "treatment" some people think that the doctor is simply there to do whatever the patient demands with no right to ask questions: agreeing to termination is the only professional medical response to someone who is pregnant and unhappy enough about being so to go to the doctor to enquire about abortion. Any doctor who thinks otherwise should, it appears, be banned from treating a patient in this condition and force them to see someone who will simply sign the necessary form. If they do not - and especially if they dare to tell people that actually quite a significant number of women, after talking, decide to continue with their pregnancy - then they must be reported to the GMC and investigated by the government. The irony is that Dr Downes is quoted in the article as saying, "It has to be the mother’s choice. I have no right to make that choice for them". It is the allegedly ’pro-choice’ movement that is here opposing attempts to ensure that women (many of whom are, unquestionably, wrestling with big moral questions and perhaps in some emotional turmoil) are truly giving informed consent. The basis for this appears to be the claim that doctors giving facts or allowing space to make this momentous decision are giving partisan and religiously biased advice whereas simply giving medical approval without necessarily engaging seriously with the patient as a hurting human person is somehow a ’neutral’ response and so the only legitimate one.


Homosexuality - A First Order Issue? (II)

16/11/2007 22:01

In thinking through this question the first challenge is what is meant by the general reference to ’homosexuality’. After all, this is the issue which is being claimed as ’first order’ and ’communion-breaking’.

The problem can be seen if the relatively uncontentious claim is made that ’Christology’ falls into this category. What exactly is being claimed? One can think of a whole range of claims that could be made about Jesus - he was unmarried, he was Jewish, he was Israel’s Messiah, he was a prophet, he is God, he is the eternal Word of God made flesh, he had two wills (divine and human). Are all of these of the same order? Are all of them issues we would consider communion-breaking? Here there have been centuries of careful theological reflection and debate. Here presumably most Christians would agree we are close to the heart of Christian faith such that some claims about Jesus are not just wrong but strictly incompatible with genuine Christian faith and being part of the catholic church. Nevertheless, we need much greater care and precision than the general label of ’Christology’. How much more must that be the case when the category is ’homosexuality’?

What then is the focus in this claim about homosexuality? Again one could think of a whole range of claims. To take two extreme examples. Someone might claim that same-sex love was the highest form of human love or, alternatively, someone might claim that all homosexual attraction was demonic and thus never experienced by a true Christian believer. These are both claims a Christian might make about ’homosexuality’. Is the acceptance or denial of them a first-order matter of Christian faith? Should we break communion with those who hold these views?

Presumably the short-hand of ’homosexuality’ or ’the gay issue’ is used by most people to refer to some of the central claims of Lambeth I.10 e.g. that homosexual practice is contrary to Scripture, that same-sex unions should not be blessed by the church and that those in such unions should not be ordained. There does, though, need to be greater clarity about what exactly must be affirmed or cannot be denied about homosexuality (and what can and cannot be done in response to homosexual love) if one is going to define it as ’first order’ or ’communion breaking’. It is only by such sharper definition that one could weigh such claims about the significance of this subject and see how the issue at stake may be related to other important issues of Christian faith and practice.

The further complication with ’homosexuality’ in contrast to say ’Christology’ or ’Trinity’ or ’atonement’ is that it relates to a widespread human phenomenon and not to an element of divine revelation. That phenomenon encompasses human desires (what we often call orientation), human actions (practice), human relationships and, in the contemporary context, often human identity. Greater clarity is needed about in which of these four areas we are being told it is vital for Christians to treat interpretation and moral evaluation of this phenomenon as a ’first order’ issue with tight constraints on what classes as a Christian stance.

Finally, when it comes to saying that ’homosexuality’ is ’communion-breaking’ there are even more difficult questions relating to what one must say or do in relation to homosexuality for the issue to become a cause of impairment or breaking of Christian fellowship. Is it a matter of someone’s personal belief? Some of the reactions to Rowan Williams’ appointment suggest it is for some. Or is it a matter of their public formal teaching and ’campaigning’? Or is it only a matter of their own personal sexuality and sexual conduct? In that case Gene Robinson would be a problem for church unity but not his supporters who do not follow his way of life. Or is it that there are a variety of personal or corporate responses to Christian same-sex couples that require an end to life in communion with those who makes these responses?

I will try to return to some of these questions after some further posts trying to understand a little more what might be meant by the other key terms of the question - ’first order’ and ’communion-breaking’.


Goddard 2 Goddard

14/11/2007 17:28

Almost a year ago now, Giles Goddard and I began a public correspondence (Goddard 2 Goddard: Waiting for Goddards - Corresponding Theologies) which is appearing on the websites of both Inclusive Church (which Giles chairs) and Fulcrum (whose Leadership Team I am on).

We’ve covered a wide range of different issues but with a particular focus on issues of debate in the Anglican Communion.

I’ve just written my sixth letter which is now online at Fulcrum and will soon appear on the Inclusive Church site.


Homosexuality: A First Order Issue? (I)

14/11/2007 17:14

In one of the first comments on the blog, Blair asked me

do you think ’the gay issue’ is a first-order one, and if so, why? …To attempt an answer - it seems to me it’s a second-order matter, not ’church-breaking…’

My initial response said

I have a lot of sympathy with your reply but would put it slightly differently (and when I’ve worked out how I’d put it, I’ll blog!)

Well, without setting a precedent for every question asked in comments (!), I’m going to try and answer this over a number of posts and hope it may generate some discussion. I confess I began trying to write a paper on this back in Jan 06 but for various reasons it never got finished. Hopefully, by breaking it all down and using the more bite-size constraints of blogging (though I suspect some posts may get quite long) I will get further this time.

I have to confess that I’ve always avoided using the language of ‘first-order’ not least because it seems to entail ‘church-breaking’ and so a label we should be very cautious about using without a great deal of precision, thought and prayer. When asked directly I have tried to explain why I’m cautious and I hope to try and spell that out over these posts.

My caution goes back some time. Some will perhaps remember the All Souls Statement of 2002. I declined to sign that in part because I thought it would be seen as yet another unhelpful attack by evangelicals on the Archbishop-elect, Rowan Williams, but primarily because of concern about what was meant and implied by its statement “Therefore the biblical norms of sexuality and sexual relationships are first order issues in exploring the best to offer our children”.

Thankfully, the language of ‘first order’ was not initially prominent in Anglican Mainstream which, along with many of the All Souls signatories, I was involved in forming in summer 2003. Indeed, when I did a Google search of the AM site in early 2006 I found that until their important October 2005 statement, “Scripture, Faith and Order” (to which we will return in later posts), the phrase only rarely appeared on the AM site (I think it was only used by two Canadians in New Westminster referring more specifically to the blessing of same-sex unions as a ‘first order’ issue).

What I hope to do in future posts is to explore three key phrases used by Blair and others that tend to set the terms of the discussion:

  1. ‘Homosexuality’ or ‘the gay issue’
  2. ‘First order’ (contrasted with ‘second order’)
  3. ‘Communion-breaking’ or ‘Church-breaking’

While to a certain extent my thinking is still in process, the heart of my concerns about asserting that homosexuality is a first-order and communion-breaking issue can be summed up as follows:

  • The lack of clarity and focus in the label ‘homosexuality’
  • The failure to be clear about the nature of the distinction between ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ issues
  • The confusion over what is meant by ’broken’ or ’impaired’ communion, both in theory and in practice
  • The failure to distinguish clearly between on the one hand discussion of ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ issues (which is a conceptual matter of determining the hierarchy of Christian truths) and, on the other, discussion of ‘breaking (or impairing) communion’ (a complex, practical question to do with how we order our common life in the visible body of Christ).
  • The statement therefore comes across to many as simply saying ‘I disagree strongly with you on this subject and want to have little or nothing to do with you and I will explain and justify that simply by appealing to the language of “first order” issue’.

However, another reason I’ve been reticent about engaging this debate is that I am also concerned that many of the reasons given for rejecting this stance share many of these flaws and can appear to be simply saying ‘we are so concerned about maintaining unity that we could not possibly categorise this as a first order issue or say our disagreements are really serious as that would probably mean we had to change how we relate to one another’.

For all my caution, my strong sympathy with the ‘first order’ viewpoint is evident in the fact I have often favourably quoted the following words of the German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg (eg in True Union in the Body?)

Here lies the boundary of a Christian Church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church

Some time soon I’ll continue with thoughts on what exactly it is about ‘homosexuality’ that might make it worth viewing it as a possible ‘first-order’ issue and/or as ‘communion-breaking’.


Primates' Meetings

14/11/2007 08:07

Within the Anglican Communion, the Primates’ Meeting has become an increasingly significant Instrument of Communion. The Anglican Communion Office recently re-designed its site and now has a whole section devoted to this Instrument. There is also an RSS news feed devoted to the Primates.

However, I don’t think there is anywhere online in which one can easily access details of all the Primates’ Meetings (unlike the excellent resources for both the ACC and the Lambeth Conferences).

I’ve therefore collated what I’ve been able to track down - for the earlier meetings there are no full statements, simply reports from the Episcopal News Service of ECUSA/TEC - and put them into the PDFs linked below.

Do let me know of any further information and resources which are available and I’ll update this resource.

Meetings of the Primates of the Anglican Communion

  1. 1979 (Nov) - Ely, England
  2. 1981 (May) - Washington, US
  3. 1983 (Oct) - Limuru, Kenya
  4. 1986 (Mar) - Toronto, Canada
  5. 1989 (May) - Cyprus
  6. 1991 (April) - Ireland
  7. 1993 (Jan) - Cape Town, South Africa
  8. 1995 (Mar) - Windsor, England
  9. 1997 (Mar) - Jerusalem
  10. 2000 (Mar) - Porto
  11. 2001 (Mar) - Kanuga
  12. 2002 (Apr) - Canterbury
  13. 2003 (May) - Brazil
  14. 2003 (Oct) - Lambeth
  15. 2005 (Feb) - Dromantine, Ireland
  16. 2007 (Feb) - Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

All the above in a single (large) PDF - Primates’ Meetings 1979-2007


The frustrations of new technology...

13/11/2007 11:47

Nothing to do directly with theology or ethics but thanks to Jane Willis (and Facebook and YouTube) I've just discovered this great "medieval helpdesk" sketch. It is in Norwegian (with subtitles!). I have to confess I faced my own challenges with new technology and it has taken me about 15 minutes to work out how to post a You Tube video. Let's hope it works...


Affirming Liberalism

12/11/2007 20:58

Just found out - from Dave Walker’s wonderful cartoon blog - about yet another new grouping in the CofE and close to home for me - geographically, even if not theologically - as focussed here in Oxford diocese.

It’s called ’Affirming Liberalism’ and although its leadership is not clear it appears to be linked to St James’ Church, Finchampstead.

It is obviously an optimistic liberalism - the day conference for February has Keith Ward on "Why the future belongs to liberal religion" and Martyn Percy on "Why Liberal Churches are Growing", presumably related to the recent book he edited on the subject with Ian Markham.

Why Liberal Churches Are Growing (Christianity and Contemporary Culture) (Christianity and Contemporary Culture)

It describes its vision in the following terms

On its website the Church of England describes itself as

“a Comprehensive Church… which has been enriched by the co-existence within it of three broad traditions, the Evangelical, the Catholic and the Liberal…”

It continues…

“The Liberal tradition has emphasized the importance of the use of reason in theological exploration. It has stressed the need to develop Christian belief and practice in order to respond creatively to wider advances in human knowledge and understanding and the importance of social and political action in forwarding God’s kingdom.”

Affirming Liberalism seeks to enhance this ‘enrichment’ of the Christian faith and support ordained and lay Christians of the Liberal Anglican tradition by:

  • Affirming faith in Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection as revealing God’s limitless love for all humanity in this life and the next.
  • Affirming the dynamic action of the Holy Spirit in the world in dispersing this divine love throughout the world.
  • Affirming the positive impact of biblical, literary and historical criticism for our engagement with Scripture and Tradition.
  • Affirming appreciation of the distinctive nature of religious language in vibrant worship which connects us to the divine.
  • Affirming a philosophical approach to Christian faith and the search for truth through God-given reason.
  • Affirming the positive insights of the natural sciences and mathematics in the formation of a Christian world-view and understanding of the universe.
  • Affirming the positive impact of the social sciences for understanding human nature and society, and developing Christian ethics.
  • Affirming the vitality of the performing and creative arts in shaping a dynamic Christian vision of life lived in relation to God.
  • Affirming open, creative conversation with Evangelicals and Catholics as a means of enriching our understanding of the Christian gospel.
  • Affirming open, creative conversation with other faith traditions and cultures as a way of deepening our understanding of God.

I’m thinking I might blog soon on a sort of ’who’s who’ of Anglican - particularly evangelical Anglican - groupings as there are now so many in the CofE it is all getting rather confusing who they all are and how they all relate to each other. As Walker comments

All we need now is an ‘Affirming Evangelicalism’ and we’ll have the set.


Defending Jesus' rights

12/11/2007 16:04

I have to confess that I’m a subscriber to Private Eye and regularly enjoy their "Funny Old World" column compiled by Victor Lewis-Smith with bizarre news stories submitted by readers.

The most recent to catch my eye (Eye 1196) came from the Daily Nation (Kenya) on 31st August. Checking online it appeared the day that the main headline was the consecration of two bishops for America! Private Eye quoted the following part of the report though you can apparently read the full report (headline ’Crucifixion suit not urgent’) if you can manage to subscribe (I failed!).

"Jesus was a man who advocated the rule of law", Humphrey Odanga told the Kenyan High Court in Nairobi, "yet he is repeatedly depicted as a criminal, even in the Bible. The crux of our case is that the arrest, torture, and punishment of Jesus was unlawful, and amounted to a violation of his human rights. Furthermore, crucifixion was a wrongful punishment for a trial based on charges of ’blaspheming the Holy Spirit’ for which the correct penalty was public stoning. We do not want to worship a convicted criminal, so we ask the court to declare Jesus Christ’s crucifixion null and void, and his crucifixion illegal. Jesus was innocent".

Odanga was speaking on behalf of Friends of Jesus, a group of wealthy Kenyan businessmen and lawyers who had brought the case. High Court spokesperson Dola Indindis agreed that the appellants "have a right in court, because the issues raised touch on human rights, and the High Court has unlimited powers in that area". But when Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch asked where the respondents were, lawyers for FOJ admitted that papers had not yet been served on Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas or King Herod.

Outside the court, legal opinion was divided. Some lawyers argued that FOJ’s petition was legitimate, but others said that "Kenyan courts do not have jurisdiction, because the ’course-of-action’ did not arise within its jurisdiction. They should have filed it in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which has the mandate to hear the case".

A Google search uncovers another press report from the end of October and what looks like the formal legal documents (I have to confess I’ve not read them) stating their case.

What I found intriguing was the rationale stated - "Jesus was a man who advocated the rule of law...We do not want to worship a convicted criminal, so we ask the court to declare Jesus Christ’s crucifixion illegal". Here we see the problem with any ’law and order’ Jesus and the real scandal of the cross. While most Christians will find Odanga’s actions weird (some online are even saying blasphemous) I suspect many might share his outlook and that none of us ever really come to terms with the social and political implications of God making himself known in a crucified Messiah and what it might therefore mean to boast only in the cross of Christ.


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